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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Great Escapees

After Crystal Palace earn a precious win over drop zone rivals Sheffield United, Nobes looks at the clubs who have made escaping from relegation a habit.

Darren Ambrose's goal helped keep Palace up at Sheffield Wednesday's expense

Battling a team from the Steel City to avoid relegation to the third tier isn't new territory for Crystal Palace.

Last season, amid their financial meltdown, the Londoners sent Sheffield Wednesday down after a final day shoot out between the pair at Hillsborough.

Their 1-0 win at the weekend over Sheffield United opened up a five point gap between themselves and the Blades, and could prove crucial in maintaining their Championship status after a poor start to the campaign.

Palace also staged a great escape in 2001 to avoid relegation from the Championship, and will be hoping to make it a hat trick of successes come May.

Here's my rundown of some of the other teams who have made a habit out of fighting - and usually winning - battles against the drop.

Portsmouth - 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2006

Three times in the 1990s, Pompey survived relegation to the third tier of English football on the final day of the season.

Firstly in 1996, a 1-0 win at Huddersfield along with Millwall failing to beat Ipswich saw them finish above the Lions on goal difference.

Two years later, and they were at it again. It had been a disastrous season with Terry Venables ending his involvement at Fratton Park and Alan Ball returning to the club to take over from Terry Fenwick.

Once more a final day win in West Yorkshire, this time 3-1 at Bradford, helped stave off relegation and send Manchester City tumbling down to League One.

Twelve months on, and Portsmouth went into receivership and would later only just avoid going out of business. On the pitch, Pompey finished the season in a four way tie on 47 points with Port Vale, QPR, and Bury.

However, it was the latter - with the worst goals scored record that took the tumble and Portsmouth were once again saved.

In 2001, they dropped into the relegation zone in the final week of the season and had to beat Barnsley in their last game to give themselves a shot of survival.

Fortunately, the Reds rolled over and Pompey's 3-0 win was enough to guarantee them a place in the Championship as Huddersfield went down instead.

Finally, during their top flight spell in the previous decade, Harry Redknapp engineered a stunning late rally in 2006 to keep Pompey in the Premier League. Where they remained until last season.

Carlisle United - 1992, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2009

No club masters in brinkmanship like the Cumbrians. It's an expertise only rivalled by their special ability to perform in the Football League Trophy.

The first of their great escapes came in 1992, when they finished bottom of the entire Football League yet avoided demotion to the Conference after Aldershot went out of business.

Their next great escape, and possibly the most famous of all, came in 1999. A 95th minute winner from emergency loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass kept the Cumbrians in the Football League at the expense of Scarborough.

Twelve months later and they did it again, this time edging out Chester City by virture of goals scored to retain their place in the 92.

With finances biting and the club coming close to going out of business, Ian Atkins's side survived by three points in the 2000/1 campaign despite winning the fewest matches in their division.

Two years later and, in the first year of two-up-two-down between the Football and Non Leagues, the Cumbrians finished 22nd, just a point above relegated Exeter.

They had won a vital relegation decider 3-2 against Shrewsbury in their penultimate match to secure their Football League place.

Finally their luck ran out in 2004 though. An horrific start to the season saw them lose 18 of their first 21 games. Paul Simpson's men staged an heroic second half revival, but this time fell through the trapdoor by just four points.

Their most recent escape came in League One in 2009 when they went into the last game of the season needing a win and other results to go their way. They duly beat Millwall 2-0 at Brunton Park to edge out Northampton by a point.

The most famous great escape of all? Jimmy Glass for Carlisle in 1999

Hartlepool United - 1997, 1999, 2009, 2010

Towards the end of the last Millennium, Pools were fighting relegation battles towards the bottom of the basement division. Now it's the third tier where they try and stave off the drop.

In 1997, they ended up just four points above bottom place Hereford. No League Two side lost more games than United that term and with three games left they sat 23rd.

However, successive wins ensured they were safe going into the final day of the season.

Two years later, and Pools were propping up the rest of the Football League at Easter and looking doomed to relegation. New boss Chris Turner inspired his team to 11 points from their last seven games though to retain their spot in the division, ending up 22nd.

More recently, they have found themselves towards the wrong end of League One, including suffering relegation from the third tier in 2006. In 2009 an end of season slump saw them avoid the drop by just a single point.

Last term, Hartlepool were safe going into the final game until a points deduction for playing an ineligible player earlier in the campaign saw them thrown back into the relegation mix.

There they battled hard to gain a 0-0 draw against Brentford and avoid relegation by virtue of a superior goal difference to Gillingham.

Torquay United - 1987, 1993, 1996, 2001, 2006

The Gulls had finished bottom of the Football League for consecutive seasons in 1985 and 1986 but twice won their re-election bid.

The last side to finish bottom in back-to-back years, Workington, hadn't, so United were fortunate to still be in the Football League when automatic relegation was introduced in 1986/7.

They were even more fortunate when, on the final day, a police dog, Bryn, bit a Torquay player, producing enough injury time for them to score a dramatic last gasp equaliser against Crewe.

It secured the point they needed to stay up and send unlucky Lincoln down.

In 1993 they were indebted to a short spell in the dugout from Neil Warnock to guide the Devonians to safety in the basement division, but in 1996 they were struggling once more and finished bottom of the entire pack.

However, Conference winners Stevenage Borough were denied promotion because of the condition of their ground, and Torquay were given a reprieve.

In 2000/1, their fight against the drop went down to the very last game of the season in a final day shootout against Barnet with the losers going down to the Conference.

They raced into a 3-0 half time lead and withstood a second half comeback to see the match out 3-2 and send the Bees down.

Finally, in 2006, United sat six points short of safety with just five games remaining. However, Ian Atkins masterminded four wins and a draw to ensure they finished three points clear of the drop zone in 20th.

A year later, and the Gulls - mismanaged both on and off the pitch - finally took the plunge and spent two years in the Conference after finishing bottom of the division.

Gulls fans invade the pitch after securing survival yet again in 2006

Exeter City - 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2010

The 1990s had begun brightly for Exeter City - they won the League Two title to gain elevation to the third tier.

However, once there, they struggled and twice came close to taking the drop.

Firstly, in 1992, they went into the final day of the season still in danger of relegation. Fortunately, while they were thumped 5-2 at Darlington, rivals Bury lost as well to go down by just two points.

The following season they finished just three points clear of relegated Preston. However, they were not so lucky in 1994 and did eventually drop down to the basement division.

There they ended up rock bottom of the entire Football League at the end of the 1994/5 season.

The Grecians almost went of business during the campaign, but were spared the Non Leagues after the Moss Rose ground of Conference champions Macclesfield controversially failed to meet the Football League's requirements.

They were not so lucky in 2003 though, as, in the first year of two-up-two-down, Exeter became the first side to finish 23rd and be relegated from the basement division.

Having bounced back to the Football League, last season Exeter staged another escape from the drop when a late winner in their final game against Huddersfield saw City stay in League One by a single point.

Crewe Alexandra - 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008

Dario Gradi's distinguished reign as Crewe boss has become synonymous with unearthing talented young players, an attractive brand of football, and the Alex punching above their weight.

Inevitably therefore, they have been involved in the odd battle against the drop, some won successfully and some not.

In 1999, the Railwaymen finished just a point above the Championship relegation zone in 18th - inspired by a late rally of ten points from their last four games to ensure their safety.

Just two points separated Alex in 18th from third bottom Walsall in 2004 as Gradi once again managed to defy the odds to keep the Cheshire club in the second tier.

Twelve months later and they staged a dramatic last day escape as a 2-1 win over Coventry, coupled with Gillingham drawing 2-2 at Nottingham Forest, saw Crewe finish above the Gills thanks to a one better goal difference.

They weren't so lucky in 2006, finally succumbing to the drop. And in 2008 they fought to retain League One football at Gresty Road.

Alex finished up just two points clear of relegated Bournemouth, despite the Cherries being deducted ten points for entering administration. A year later though, and relegation did catch up with them.

A clear warning to any side constantly flirting with the drop. One year, it will catch up with you.

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